Yes, these walls can talk

By J. L. Starkey

And there were houses, he knew it, that breathed. They carried in their wood and stone, their brick and mortar a kind of ego that was nearly, very nearly, human.

– Nora Roberts

“There? You lived there?” My son looked at me in disbelief and then looked again at the photos of the 120-year-old home in Evanston, Illinois.

“I did…for a very bad few months,” I answered. As I looked at the photos of that old home, the genealogist in me wondered about its former residents. Why now?

I blame this week’s 52 Ancestors prompt, which is earliest. Thanks to that word, the memories of my first weeks at Northwestern University were suddenly screaming for attention. I guess it makes sense, in a way. Out of all the places I’ve lived, that house was built at the earliest time. I knew it might have some issues before I moved in, but nothing could have prepared me for the first time I saw it.

Seriously…not one single thing.

It was moving day, and I was beyond excited. I was starting graduate school at my dream university! It was a huge day, to be sure.

That house, though. The walls couldn’t talk, but the landlord could. He approached my dad (with tequila sunrise in hand) and told dad he was the first parent ever who didn’t take one look at the place and say, “Live there? Not my daughter!”

My mom cried, and my dad? Let’s just say he picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

I was crushed. This was supposed to be a dream come true, but instead my new home was a nightmare. It had wooden fire escapes (yes – wooden), and bathrooms so leaky that the floors were sprouting mushrooms. A few months after move-in day, rumor had it that a disgruntled tenant shoved an umbrella into the property’s sewer pipe, causing even more issues in the already-decaying home.

Call it the straw that broke the camel’s back…or the umbrella that broke the graduate student’s lease. I was out of there.

I haven’t thought about that house in decades, but this week, I did a bit of sleuthing, and would you look at that? The home saw some history!

And yes, it also made some history.

Finding Garnett Place

An early clue? Map of Evanston, Illinois, 1950

Using Stephen P. Morse’s Unified Census ED Finder, I searched for the Garnett Place address but only found it listed in the 1900 census. Strangely, “Garnett” was not in the actual records for that ED, although the nearby addresses were all correct. I wondered if the street name had changed at some point.

Next, I searched newspapers and found a 1943 obituary for Lewis Young, who lived at 1117 Garnett Place [1]. However, according to directory and census records, Mr. Young lived at 1117 Ayars Place, not Garnett. Had the street name originally been Ayars?

I compared a recent map with one from 1950 and found that Garnett and Ayars were in the same location [2]. I then searched for Ayars Place and discovered two things. First, Garnett was originally Ayars (also called Ayars Court), and second, Ayars Place was home to a heck of a lot of history.

The Street That Broke The Color Line

Originally named for James Ayars, onetime president of the Board of Village Trustees, Ayars Place was home to students and families during the late 1800s and early 1900s [3]. At that time, Evanston was a segregated town. White real estate brokers practiced a form of racial zoning and limited black buyers and renters to residences in west Evanston only.

That all changed, however, when a black minister bought a home on Ayars Place in 1913 [4].

Chicago Tribune, 18 September 1913

A group of white residents formed an association to prevent what they called “negro invasion,” but they were unsuccessful in their efforts [5].

Finally, change was coming to Ayars Place.

By 1925, 75% of the street’s residents were black, and two-thirds of those residents were homeowners. Today, Ayars Place (now called Garnett Place) is known as the street that “broke the color line [6].” You can read more about this amazing part of Evanston’s history in this wonderful blog post by Angela F. Allen, whose maternal ancestors lived on Ayars Place in the 1920s.

But what of house number 1021 on that historic street? What stories were hiding there? Indeed, those walls could talk…and they had some stories to tell!

Teachers, Preachers, and Runaway Brides

Ayars Place in 1899 (#1021 is outlined in red)

According to census records, the home’s first occupants were Orestus F. Booth and his wife, Martha, a former teacher. In 1900, they lived at 1021 Ayars Place with their son and a boarder [7].

The first residents of 1021 Ayars Place [1900 census, FamilySearch image]

Orestus was unemployed and in failing health, and the home was probably chosen for its proximity to medical care. In 1904, on the advice of his doctor, Orestus moved to Cuba. His health continued to decline, however, and he died shortly after his arrival in the Caribbean nation. Sadly, in 1905, Martha died as well, leaving her son orphaned at the age of eleven [8].

Delbert Ullrick
[9 Jan 1921 Chicago Tribune]

In 1903, 1021 Ayars Place was home to Northwestern University ministry student Delbert Ullrick [9]. He would later become president of The Vocational & Psychological Institute of Chicago, a business listed under “amusements” in classified ads [10].

Ullrick offered lectures and career counseling for topics such as “the choice of a life work” and “the productive thinker.” He was ahead of his time with his opinion that career choice was related to happiness, and his lectures were popular and well attended [11].

In 1904, another resident of 1021 Ayars Place was in the headlines, this time for a bizarre story of love and deception. Ralph E. Summerville was engaged to marry a woman he believed to be Juliet Dale on 28 February of that year. She did not show up for their wedding, and Summerville ran a personal ad in hopes of finding her.

Runaway bride? [March 1904 Chicago Tribune]

Miss Juliet responded to R. W. E. with a personal ad of her own.

Miss Juliet’s personal ad to Ralph [March 1904 Chicago Tribune]

On 6 March, the couple was wed, but by that time “Radcliffe graduate Juliet Dale” had confessed to Summerville that she was actually Charlotte Kirk, the disowned daughter of wealthy Evanstonian John B. Kirk [13]. Summerville apparently wasn’t too upset with his fiancee’s deception, since he married her anyway [14]. The newlyweds resided at 1021 Ayars Place…for a few days, anyway.

Runaway Bride, 15 March 1904 Chicago Tribune

Charlotte/Juliet disappeared shortly after the wedding. She returned the next day, but during her absence, an article about her past ran in the local papers. Was she hiding a few things, or was she just telling some very tall tales?

According to the articles, Juliet Dale (who had several aliases) was not the daughter of John Kirk. She supposedly served as a Red Cross nurse during the Spanish-American War, but said that she was actually a spy. She insisted that she could have been a countess, but she wanted to marry for love, not status.

She also had apparently been married and divorced twice prior to her marriage to Summerville [15].

Yes, there was drama at 1021 Ayars Place, and some of it bordered on the ridiculous.

Sadly, there was also tragedy for residents of the house.

Tragedy at Fish Furniture Company, 26 March 1910 Chicago Examiner

Banford Sinclair, ca. 1910

On 25 March 1910, resident John Evans had the grim task of identifying his brother-in-law, Banford Sinclair, one of the twelve victims of the L. Fish Furniture Company fire [16]. Sometimes called “yet another fire that never should have taken any lives,” the tragedy was blamed on poor emergency preparedness and a lack of fire escapes [17].

A jury awarded Sinclair’s estate just $8500 in compensation for his death, leaving his family to grieve the loss of one of their own [18].

Indeed, the boarders at 1021 Ayars Place had more than a few stories to tell.

History Revealed

I started researching the history of 1021 Garnett Place on a whim, expecting to find a few directory listings, perhaps a building permit, and maybe a photo or two.

What I actually found was so much more than that. The walls of that old house spoke to me as I researched. It was a good reminder that everyone – yes, everyone – has a story.

We just need to know where to look for it.


  1. “Lewis Young,” Chicago Tribune, 13 Jul 1943, p. 14, col. 2. Retrieved from
  2. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Evanston, Cook County, Illinois. Sanborn Map Company, 1920 – De, 1950. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>. (See also: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Evanston, Cook County, Illinois. Sanborn Map Company, 1899. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>. )
  3. Sheppard, Robert D, and Harvey B. Hurd. History of Northwestern University and Evanston. Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1906. Retrieved from Google Play Books.
  4. “Evanston…The City We Built,” A Publication of the Evanston Roundtable Newspaper, May 2013, p. 9. (3789630.).
  5. “Evanstonians Organize to Prevent Negro Invasion,” Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 18 Sept 1913, p. 2, col. 3. Retrieved from
  6. Wiese, Andrew. “Black Housing, White Finance: African American Housing and Home Ownership in Evanston, Illinois, before 1940.” Journal of Social History, vol. 33, no. 2, 1999, pp. 429–460. JSTOR,
  7. “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 23 June 2019), O F Booth, Evanston Township Evanston city Ward 5, Cook, Illinois, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 1159, sheet 2B, family 44, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, 1972.); FHL Film 1,240,292.
  8. “Former Teacher Aux Sable Dead,” The Joliet Evening Herald-News, Joliet, Illinois, 14 Feb 1905, p. 6, col. 1. Retrieved from
  9. Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.). Alumni Record of the College of Liberal Arts: 1903. [Chicago]: The University, 1903. Retrieved from Google Play Books. (See also: “World’s Prizes Won By The Poor,” The Chicago Tribune, 20 Jun 1902, p. 5, col. 1. Retrieved from
  10. “5 Psychology Demonstrations” advertisement, The Chicago Tribune, 8 Jan 1921, p. 11, col. 1. Retrieved from
  11. “Psychology of Business” and “Free Lectures On Applied Psychology,” Freeport Journal Standard, Freeport, Illinois, 19 Apr 1921, p. 6, col. 3 & 4. Retrieved from
  12. “Claims Millionaire Father,” The Inter-Ocean, Chicago, Illinois, 13 Mar 1904, p. 1, col. 5-6. Retrieved from
  13. “Summerville Has Romance,” The Northwestern, Evanston, Illinois, 14 Mar 1904, p. 1, col. 4. Retrieved from (See also: “Romance in Suburb,” The Chicago Sunday Tribune, 13 Mar 1904, p. 1, col. 5. Retrieved from
  14. “Bride Gone: Weird Story Left,” Chicago Tribune, 15 Mar 1904, p. 9, col. 4. Retrieved from
  15. Chicago Tribune, 26 Mar 1910, p. 2, col. 3. Retrieved from (See also: “12 Trapped by Flames,” Chicago Examiner, Vol. VIII, No. 82, 26 Mar 1910, p. 1, col. 4-7. Retrieved from Chicago Public Library Digital Collections.)
  16. Hogan, John F., and Alex A. Burkholder. Forgotten Fires of Chicago: the Lake Michigan Inferno and a Century of Flame. The History Press, 2014.
  17. “$8,500 For Fire Victim’s Family,” The Inter-Ocean, 26 May 1912, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “Yes, these walls can talk

Add yours

  1. Incredible for one house to have that much interesting history. It’s always fun to start searching and get on a roll finding stuff. Great job!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: